Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Whole-Body-Imaging, the Health Threat, and the Security Industry Lobby

I have written a lot about the latest privacy invasive security “savior” being peddled by the Fear-Industrial-Complex (another term I've heard floated is the Homeland-Security-Industrial-Complex) called “Whole-Body-Imaging” ("digital strip search"). These full-body scanners use one of two technologies - millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays - to see through clothing, producing images of naked passengers.

I want to revisit the topic because of two articles I have come across in the past two days that further expose the myriad of reasons why these scanners are not a good idea.

Profiting off Fear

As with any modern "defense issue", there are big money interests advocating on behalf of these scanners - namely a variety of security industry companies and former high level officials like Michael Chertoff seeking to profit off the publics' irrational fear of terrorism. As an article in today's Los Angeles Times details, this industry is exploding in both profits and clout in the Capitol.

The Obama administration alone set aside $1 billion last year in stimulus funds for new security technology for the TSA. In January 2007, an article documenting its rising profile noted that "Rapiscan's (the primary manufacturer of "body scanners" and a client of Michael Chertoff) presence on Capitol Hill pays off," with the company having opened a new Washington office and hiring a number of outside lobbyists. As the article details:

"The results have been apparent. Last year the company did $17 million to $20 million in contracts. Over the past six months, the company has had $40 million in sales to the US government, compared with $8 million in 2004. 'We plan to dramatically expand in the next few years well above the multimillion-dollar [mark],' says Peter Kant, vice president of government affairs for Rapiscan…Rapiscan also decided last year to join the political money game in a more coordinated effort, by creating a political action committee.

Kant says he expects the PAC to raise $50,000 to $75,000 a year and donate equally to both parties. Previously, about 60 percent of the political donations from the firm's executives went to Republicans…How Rapiscan and other homeland-security companies will fare in the new political climate is still unclear. Lawmakers are expected to increase oversight and investigation of homeland-security issues such as government contracts."

As further noted in the Truthout.org article I'm featuring today by Randall Amster J.D., Ph.D.:

...Rapiscan received $25.4 million from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by way of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (i.e., the Stimulus Bill), to produce 150 new full-body scanners to be used at airports across the United States. Peter Kant, a vice president at Rapiscan, said that the government has given the TSA the green light to spend up to $173 million on new scanners, which could lead to the emplacement of hundreds of such devices in the near future. Interestingly, the $25.4 million tendered to Rapiscan for the first 150 scanners was formally awarded in September 2009, well ahead of the Christmas Day bombing attempt that has set off the recent flurry of scanner demands. According to recovery.gov, Rapiscan also received $2.9 million in stimulus monies in May 2009. The total number of jobs created by these millions in stimulus funds is estimated at 40.

In addition to the stimulus money recently administered, the US Army just announced an award of a no-bid contract to Rapiscan for 12 scanners to be used at military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. Previously, in December 2009, Rapiscan received a $5 million contract from NATO to provide screening devices for use in Afghanistan.

It goes without saying that there's also a political component to the recent push for these scanners, as elected officials are constantly seeking to score political points in the hopes of establishing their "tough on terror" credentials.

Privacy Concerns and TSA Lies

I have detailed the privacy implications, which I will touch upon again today. Let's face it, being digitally strip searched without probable cause at every airport by the least opens a pandora's box (where next will we use these scanners?)...and wets an already terror driven slipper slope.

And now, with this much money at stake, it should be no surprise that - thanks to the work of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and with help from the Freedom of Information Act -we now know for a fact that TSA officials have been misleading the public by claiming these scanners cannot store or send their graphic images.

According to the 2008 documents obtained by EPIC, the TSA specified that the machines must have image storage and sending abilities when in "test mode."Even taking into account the "test mode" caveat, these documents are contrary to the representations that have been made in recent weeks by TSA officials that the machines have "zero storage capability".

On the TSA's own Web site - in an effort to assure passengers their privacy is protected - it specifically says "the system has no way to save, transmit or print the image." Now we know that these devices DO include the ability to store, record and transfer images of passengers screened at U.S. airports, including hard disk storage and USB integration and Ethernet connectivity. In other words, the privacy concerns articulated by civil liberties advocates were not overstated.

Security Benefits Overstated

The claimed security benefits of these scanners have also proven to be highly dubious. It remains debatable in fact whether this technology would have even detected the “underwear bomber”. This is in contrast to what we do know: if law enforcement had simply acted on the information it had already gathered - like the warnings of the “underwear bomber's” father - the plot would have been foiled much earlier.

Another point to consider before embracing this latest "terror fix" is that for every specific tactic we target with a new, expensive, and often burdensome security apparatus, the terrorist's tactics themselves will change (including use of body cavities). Risks can be reduced for a given target, but not eliminated. If we strip searched every single passenger at every airport in the country, terrorists would try to bomb shopping malls or movie theaters.

New Concerns Over Threat to Health

And now, as the article entitled "Invasion of the Body Scanners" details, there are new concerns that question the untested nature of these technologies and whether they are in fact safe for widespread use. As an article from NaturalNews (recently reprinted by Truthout) observed:

"In researching the biological effects of the millimeter wave scanners used for whole body imaging at airports, NaturalNews has learned that the energy emitted by the machines may damage human DNA . Millimeter wave machines represent one of two primary technologies currently being used for the 'digital strip searches' being conducted at airports around the world. 'The Transportation Security Administration utilizes two technologies to capture naked images of air travelers - backscatter x-ray technology and millimeter wave technology,' reports the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a non-profit currently suing the US government to stop these electronic strip searches.

In order to generate the nude image of the human body, these machines emit terahertz photons - high-frequency energy 'particles' that can pass through clothing and body tissue. The manufacturers of such machines claim they are perfectly safe and present no health risks, but a study conducted by Boian S. Alexandrov (and colleagues) at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico showed that these terahertz waves could 'unzip double-stranded DNA, creating bubbles in the double strand that could significantly interfere with processes such as gene expression and DNA replication.'"

The Los Alamos study, which can be found in an online physics journal and is further analyzed in MIT's Technology Review (TR), opens the door for more in-depth investigations of this technology that is about to become pervasive, since, as TR noted, "a new generation of cameras are set to appear that not only record terahertz waves but also bombard us with them. And if our exposure is set to increase, the question that urgently needs answering is what level of terahertz exposure is safe."

And yet, as NaturalNews indicated, "no such long-term safety testing has ever been conducted by a third party. There have been no clinical trials indicating that multiple exposures to such terahertz waves, accumulated over a long period of time, are safe for humans." Given what we already know about the effects of radiation, as well as the initial report from Los Alamos, this would seem at a minimum to be a circumstance requiring greater study before mass deployment. It is more likely, however, that these untested devices will be in place long before adequate testing is done, suggesting that any such safety analysis will simply be undertaken as the devices are being used on human subjects at airports across the US and around the world.

Now to the rest of today's featured article by Dr. Amster, a professor of peace studies at Prescott College and the executive director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association:

And then there are the obvious matters of privacy and dignity. One need not be a constitutional scholar or privacy-rights advocate to appreciate the implications of conducting such invasive de facto "strip searches" on a widespread scale.


The New York Times further noted that "others say that the technology is no security panacea, and that its use should be carefully controlled because of the risks to privacy, including the potential for its ghostly naked images to show up on the Internet." Indeed, as Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer intoned: "They say these full-body screening images - in which I am pretty sure we are naked - are immediately erased, but I don't believe them for a minute. Either somebody is keeping them on the hard drive to protect himself in case some terrorist gets by on his watch, or some enterprising guy is going to be selling Britney Spears' body scan to TMZ for a hundred thousand bucks. I mean this is America, land of the irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit." Absent clear and enforceable limitations, it seems likely that such scenarios will ensue.


Despite being known as a fairly Puritanical people in many respects - at least in terms of what constitutes "public decency" and the like - it seems that Americans perhaps are more permissive in their sense of decorum than we have been led to believe. Is it still voyeurism when the subject willingly desires to be watched? Must security and privacy exist in tension, or can they be fruitfully reconciled? Is constant surveillance becoming the baseline of our lives, and if so, who is watching the watchers? With the proliferation of public cameras, digital recorders, webcams, cellphone cameras and, now, terahertz scanners, we will be confronted with the implications of these technologies for the foreseeable future. The fact that our collective fears seem to be the leading edge of the debate doesn't bode particularly well for reasoned decision-making and the eventual utilization of new technologies for emancipation rather than subjugation.

And in the End …

The matter of full-body scanners presents a critical cultural referendum on basic questions of freedom and autonomy. The circumstances under which the issue is being presented - a climate of fear instilled by a well-hyped reminder of the shared trauma of 9/11 - make it almost impossible to have confidence in a sound and sober resolution. Moreover, the primary players behind the use of these technologies are imbricated within the workings of a growing military-industrial complex that continues to pervade more aspects of our lives.

This watershed moment in the public dialogue about security and privacy is framed by an increasing militarization of everyday life in America, as indicated by a recollection of the loci in which companies like Rapiscan operate - namely, "at airports, government and corporate buildings, correctional and prison facilities, postal facilities, military zones, sea ports and border crossings." This list could easily expand to include schools, hospitals, malls, arenas, banks, stores, and more. Now is the moment to rein it in while we still have a window of self-determination in which to do so.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

I would just conclude today by reiterating a few points I have made here in the past. This increasingly influential "Fear-Industrial-Complex" (i.e. Department of Defense, corporate media, talk radio, security technologies industry, Congress, the White House, “the intelligence community”, pundits, weapons defense contractors, etc.) serves as a kind of de facto terror hype machine that is far more interested in maximizing profit and power than reducing any threat posed by terrorism.

The False Choice: Privacy versus Security

The unholy alliance of political expediency and corporate profit that is largely behind the "selling of these scanners" belies the false choice that pits "security against civil liberties". Sadly, this fundamentally dishonest "frame" is nearly universally accepted as fact and parroted by the corporate media, big business, and the government.

If we are truly trying to reduce the threat of terrorism there are DEMONSTRABLY more effective ways than those currently being pursued. A few alternative tactics to consider: stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, torturing and indefinitely jailing their people, and propping up many of their countries most ruthless dictators.

As I wrote in "The Politics of Fear and Whole-Body-Imaging": No one is denying that terrorism is a threat or seeking to justify their crimes, but how does creating more of them make us safer? And instead of spending one more minute listening to the grumblings of a war criminal like Dick Cheney, we would do well to heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. instead: "We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others."

Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) articulates why reducing privacy doesn't guarantee better security, stating "It's a mistake to believe you can trade privacy for security. A lot of times people give up privacy and they're no more secure. I'm very skeptical of people who say that if you only trade in privacy, you'll get more security. I don't think that's true, and body scanners are a good example of that."

I want to conclude with my "go to" quote that I think best dismantles the Privacy vs. Security lie from security expert Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World:

"If you set up the false dichotomy, of course people will choose security over privacy -- especially if you scare them first. But it's still a false dichotomy. There is no security without privacy. And liberty requires both security and privacy. The famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." It's also true that those who would give up privacy for security are likely to end up with neither.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whole body imaging is the future.
It WILL be in airports, courthouses, mini-marts, banks, libarys, private business, shopping malls, corprate offices,
police station, starbucks,
your computer store!, bathrooms,
restraunts, hotels, brothels,
at your security conferance!,
and in your church! By GOD.